Standing up to big business lobbies: ALTER-EU's annual assembly and public debate

Corporate Europe Observatory, as a steering committee member of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU), was delighted to be involved in the ALTER-EU annual assembly last week, “Standing up to big business lobbies: Reclaiming Europe for the public interest ”. As part of this, CEO took part in a high-level public debate in Brussels, “Lessons from a Lobbycracy: Transformation for Transparency and Rules for Revolving Door ”, alongside Members of European Parliament (MEPs) and representatives of the European Commission, to discuss the upcoming reviews of the revolving-door rules for EU staff and of the EU's voluntary lobby register. We also led the first-ever Dalligate lobby tour.

CEO has reported a lot about Dalligate, the tobacco cash-for-influence lobby scandal that led to the downfall, in mysterious and contested circumstances, of former health Commissioner John Dalli. One of the reasons Dalligate is such a juicy affair is that it starkly illustrates the problems with voluntary lobby transparency and with inadequate management of the conflicts of interest that arise from the revolving-door – public officials becoming big business lobbyists, and vice versa. These issues get to the heart of the problem of corporate capture of EU policy-making processes, through the unequal access and undue influence of big business interests.

These were the topics that CEO's Rachel Tansey debated with Green MEP Bart Staes, centre-right MEP Monica Macovei, and the European Commission's Christian Linder. It was clear from the debate that whilst the only democratically elected body of the EU is strongly behind better rules – having twice voted for a mandatory lobby register – the Commission is lagging behind in recognition of the problems of behind-closed doors lobbying, as well as on conflicts of interest, and the impact that these have on the (lack of) credibility of the EU institutions in the eyes of an increasingly disillusioned public.

The two policy reviews, which the debate was timed to shine a light on, offer a critical opportunity to ensure that democracy – government by the people – is given a chance to triumph over the slippery slope to a lobbycracy – government by the narrow economic interests that are most successful at lobbying.

These were themes that inspired the assembly of ALTER-EU groups throughout the two day convergence in Brussels, with workshops discussing the lobby battle around data privacy – with fantastic and cutting-edge digital rights groups like La Quadrature du Net and Parltrack, at a time when the EU is witnessing one of the biggest ever lobby offensives against new data privacy laws by Internet giants - as well as workshops on water privatisation, tobacco and finance. The assembly also focused on the upcoming opportunity of the 2014 European Parliament elections. This is a time when EU issues gain far more public attention and when MEPs' are more open to discuss the need for the transformation of lobbying and ethics rules.

Another highlight of the ALTER-EU event was CEO's first “Dalligate” lobby tour, a playful take on the deepest, murkiest lobby scandal to hit Brussels in recent years: the cash-for-influence tobacco lobby mess that led to the forced resignation of the Health Commissioner John Dalli, last October. Six months later, we still don't have the answers to what went on and key political figures remain determined to keep the lid on the truth. So we let our participants decide “who dunnit”, at the end of our whistlestop tour of the EU quarter's main institutions and lobby players immersed in the scandal - from the OLAF anti-fraud agency building (funded by big tobacco) to the offices of tobacco company Swedish Match (whose complaint was investigated by OLAF). Curious?

You can see some of the pictures from the Dalligate lobby tour on flickr...

Or you can attend the next Dalligate lobby tour in Brussels, at 1pm on Tuesday 23rd April– for the details, please RSVP to ceo@corporateeurope.org